The Real Rag­nar

A his­tor­i­cal leg­end or merely fic­tion?

All About History - - RAGNAR LOÐBRÓK -

The sagas start in leg­end and end in his­tory with di­ver­sions into tales of ad­ven­ture and chivalry through­out. But the saga of Rag­nar Loðbrók neatly strad­dles the tran­si­tion from leg­end to his­tory: it be­gins by an­chor­ing the fu­ture wife of Rag­nar in the great­est of Norse leg­end, the story of Sig­urd the Dragon Slayer and Bryn­hild (ig­nor­ing the dif­fi­culty of Sig­urd and Bryn­hild be­long­ing to a time four cen­turies ear­lier), and ends with the sons of Rag­nar, men such as Ivar the Bone­less and Sig­urd Snake-in-the-eye, who are un­doubt­edly his­tor­i­cal fig­ures.

Whether Rag­nar him­self was a his­tor­i­cal char­ac­ter re­mains un­known. While a group of Viking war chiefs were known as sons of Loðbrók, this could re­fer to a tribal founder as their ac­tual pa­ter­nal father. But if Rag­nar was real, he likely first ap­pears in the his­tor­i­cal record in 845 CE, when a Viking chief­tain named Regin­heri led

120 long­ships up the River Seine to at­tack Paris. Ac­cord­ing to the French chron­i­clers, this Rag­nar suc­cumbed to the plague that dev­as­tated the Vik­ings be­sieg­ing Paris. But ‘Rag­nar’ pops up again in the fol­low­ing decades: he raids Scot­land and the Isles, set­tles in Dublin, at­tacks An­gle­sey and, fi­nally, dies in a snake-filled pit in York. Ac­tu­ally, Rag­nar ap­pears to have died at least five times dur­ing his ca­reer.

It's pos­si­ble that a series of dif­fer­ent Viking chief­tains who shared sim­i­lar names had their sto­ries con­flated into one char­ac­ter: Rag­nar Loðbrók. Once this process be­gan, the pull of a good hero with name recog­ni­tion would en­sure that other tales would be as­cribed to him, in the same way that Arthur, at most a war leader of the Bri­tons, be­came the ex­em­plar of me­dieval chivalry.

With the modern rein­ter­pre­ta­tion of Vik­ings, which has seen them change from blood­thirsty rapists to in­trepid ex­plor­ers and traders, it was only a mat­ter of time be­fore Rag­nar Loðbrók would be reimag­ined for the screen. Vik­ings makes for great tele­vi­sion but it con­flates dif­fer­ent times and char­ac­ters, mak­ing the his­tor­i­cal Rollo, the first ruler of Nor­mandy, Rag­nar’s brother and con­tem­po­rary, when in re­al­ity Rag­nar came two gen­er­a­tions be­fore Rollo. But such tale mak­ing is in keep­ing with the writ­ers of the sagas.

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